Bride: Even though you give respect daily, and your conduct is satisfactory. All us women are exploited, how will you take me?
We (now) know the experience of freedom and have become self-respecting.
Groom: I will fight to win these rights for all women without counting the cost. I honor all women as sisters and you as the only love.
-Wedding Song by Jotirao Phule.
This song discussing a dialogue on ‘freedom of women’ was written by the husband of Savitribai Phule, Jotirao Phule. It is no surprise that his wife was India’s first female teacher, a reformer, a leader and our first Marathi poetess. Many in her time, such as Sudras, atisudras and women were facing what Sociologist Orlando Patterson terms as ‘Social Death.’ She resisted these caste and gender biases of her times and worked relentlessly for the upliftment of the oppressed men and women and was indeed the Krantijyoti or the ‘Lamp of Revolution’. The details of the same will be discussed hereafter.
Savitribai: The Educator:
She worked with Jotirao to start five schools in 1849 and also opened the first school for girls in India . As there were no teachers to teach girls at the time, Savitribai took to the task herself. This was not as easy as it looks to us now. At the time, women were not allowed to get any education and when Savitribai tried to change this: cow dung, stone, dirt and mud were thrown at her as she traveled to the school to educate girls. This actual mud-slinging that she faced, was symbolic of Brahmanical anger at women crossing the Dehleez or the boundaries it prescribed and enforced on them for ages. Finally, Jotirao suggested that Savitirbai carry an extra saree and change after reaching the school. These attacks came to an end, when she finally slapped one of the people trying to throw dung at her. The attack on the couple was on all fronts, from the people outside their families to those on the inside. The Phule couple was asked to leave Jotirao’s paternal home when they refused to close their school. However, in course of time, the school would receive support from the elite and the government.
Savitribai: The Emancipatory Reformer:
Savitribai also started a women’s association called the Mahila Seva Mandal in 1852. While other native associations of the time were focussed on petitioning their demands to the Colonial rulers. This association worked towards raising the consciousness in women about their human rights. As Savitirbai was able to see the brahmanical nature of patriarchy and resisted its various manifestations, she encouraged widow remarriage, fought against the infanticide of illegitimate children and opened a home for these children. She also organized a successful barber’s strike against the practice of shaving the heads of widows in colonial India. All these steps were way ahead of her time and the beginning of a discourse on the rights of women.
Savitribai’s fight for reforms also included other oppressed sections of the Indian Society. She was also a top leader of the Satyasodhak Samaj and headed its women’s wing. She was a partner in reforms and resistance to her husband and the Phules opened 52 boarding schools for the welfare of children orphaned in famines. Even at Phule’s funeral she carried out his last rites, one of the rarest instances of the time where a wife would light the pyre of her husband. After Jotriao’s death, Savitribai led the Satyasodhak Samaj and helped in famine and epidemic relief during 1896-97.
Savitribai: The Poetess:
Savitribai was also one of the first published women in modern India. She wrote multiple poems which emphasized the importance of getting an education and learning English, which was outside the control of Brahmans and would open prospects for the hitherto oppressed men and women. She also knew that words had the capacity to touch one’s hearts and encourage people to stand up for their rights. One such poem by her was:
Go, Get Education:
Be self-reliant, be industrious
Work—gather wisdom and riches.
All gets lost without knowledge
We become animals without wisdom.
So learn and break the chains of caste.
Throw away the brahman’s scriptures fast.
The revolutionary character and emancipatory potential of her writings can be seen in the above lines by Savitribai. She asks each person to be industrious and self-reliant and emphasizes on the importance of both material wealth and wisdom. However, central to her poems is, the scathing attacks on the chains of caste which had emphasized on the ‘bliss of ignorance’ which Savitribai aimed at throwing away along with the Brahmin’s scriptures which made passive sufferers out of individuals. These themes are also seen in other poems of Savitribai:
A Forgotten Liberator:
Throw off the yoke of redundant belief
Break open the door, walk out in relief.
Learn to read and write, O my dear one Opportune
times! Mother English has come.
Manu’s ways are evil and mean
Poor and depressed we have all been.
Here also, she asks each person to throw away the yoke of redundant belief and accept the opportunities, English education offers to all. She again emphasizes on the evil of Brahmanical scriptures that had kept the large number of masses poor and depressed. She also discusses the need to break away from these oppressive scriptures and structures. Thus, in all of her work and words, we see a connecting trope of emancipating and liberating the oppressed people and creating a just and humane society.
Marx once said “philosophers have attempted to interpret the world in various ways, but the point is to change it.” Savitribai not only interpreted the oppressive world around her but also changed it. She challenged the supremacy and legitimacy of Brahmanical patriarchy and its scriptures. She also opened the doors of schools for the Sudras, Atisudras and Women. She fought for the rights of widows, of illegitimate children and the orphans. Therefore, Savitribai was rightly called Krantijyoti or the Lamp of Revolution in the true sense of the word!
Mani, B.R. and Sardar, P (2008). A Forgotten Liberator, The Life and Struggle of Savitribai Phule.
Mani, B.R, Introduction in Mani and Sardar. Pp 1-13.
Omvedt, G, ‘A Teacher and A Leader’ in Mani and Sardar. Pp 28-31.
Sardar, S. and Paul, V, ‘Pioneering Engaged Writing: Savitribai Phule’s Poetry’ in Mani and Sardar. Pp 65-67.
Stephen, C, ‘The Stuff Legends Are Made Of’ in Mani and Sardar. Pp 14-27.